CANADIAN RESIDENT-Iranian exile Alip captures the energy and dynamism of the protests. (photo credit: Alip)
CANADIAN RESIDENT-Iranian exile Alip captures the energy and dynamism of the protests. (photo credit: Alip)
Jerusalem Museum of Islamic Art salutes women of Iran

Sadly, Iran continues to demand news coverage almost invariably of the negative kind. Then again, the latter describes the vast majority of what mass media outlets proffer to the public in any case.

Be that as it may, what we largely hear about Iran – betwixt the odd mention of plans to develop nuclear programs that Western powers suspect are designed to help Iran join the select list of countries with nuclear weapons capabilities – is mostly about violent protests against the Islamist regime’s oppressive dictates regarding the behavior of women.

That provides the nucleus of the Five – Woman, Life, Freedom exhibition, curated by Orly Cohen, which opened at the Museum for Islamic Art yesterday, and is due to run through March 21 as part of the museum’s current Irancentric program, called simply “Iran.” The numerical title refers to five women in Iran who have suffered at the hands of the theocratic Iranian authorities for speaking out against the strictures placed on how women may dress and comport themselves in public.

They and others have been hounded, maimed and even killed for joining the growing groundswell of opposition to the patriarchic system that has controlled public life and mores in Iran since the Islamic Revolution took place there in 1979.

The exhibition includes compelling and highly evocative images – all digital works culled by Cohen from social networks – by exiled Iranian-born artists, non-Iranians and, incredibly, some still living in Iran. 

 THE DEATH of 22-year-old activist Mahsa Amini inspired artistic tributes across social media. (credit: Javad Takjoo) THE DEATH of 22-year-old activist Mahsa Amini inspired artistic tributes across social media. (credit: Javad Takjoo)

An exhibit on Iran and the regime's oppression

There is also a film, Sweet Destiny, about human rights in Iran which, it states at the outset, is “dedicated to the families of the victims of the death penalty and all those working for the abolishment of this inhuman punishment.” The live action-animation hybrid film was made by Arash Sobhani, an exiled Iranian rock musician and TV show host. This is its first screening in Israel.

Presumably, the scheduling of the exhibition and associated slots had something to do with the advent of Purim and the fact that the biblical story is based on events that took place two and a half millennia ago in Persia. Indeed, Persia features in Jewish history since the eighth century BCE, a fact that will be expounded upon at a talk by Tamar Eilam Gindin, a linguist and scholar of Iran whose various fields of expertise take in Judeo-Persian which, she says, incorporates numerous linguistic branches and idioms.

Eilam Gindin will be joined by writer-director Maayan Eshkoli to present the “Queen Esther – The True Story” lecture that aims to bring the relevant biblical characters and storyline to contemporary life by interweaving historical documentation with myths and midrash.

Five – Woman, Life, Freedom forms the expansive visual backbone of the program, with around 150 images on display that draw the eye and grab the heart. One of the contributing artists is Milad Nazifi with three works in the layout. Two of them show a young woman who appears to be winking. Is this a tongue-in-cheek jab at the Iranian regime? Or is it a purely comedic-satirical, theatrical, portrayal?

It transpires there is nothing funny at all here, even though the subject took a brave, seemingly light-hearted, stance on the incident which left her blind in one eye. The woman in the digitally created pictures is Ghazal Ranjkesh, a law student from Bandar Abbas in the south of Iran. At the time, Ranjkesh said she was on her way home with her mother, on November 15 last year, when a police officer fired a bullet at her face at close range.

Apparently, the twentysomething woman had previously attended a demonstration. The authorities got wind of this “transgression” when she appeared on social media. That has been the protesters’ principal means of expression and communication. It is an efficient means for conveying pictorial items and messages but, unfortunately, is also a channel that is easily accessible to the powers that be who are seeking to quash any signs of insurgence.

“After this revolution [social unrest] began, they realized that the authorities are monitoring the social networks. They see which youngsters are good-looking and are very active on social networks, and they go out to grab them on the streets,” Cohen explains. 

Cohen is currently working on a doctoral thesis in the Department of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at the University of Haifa. She has also translated works by leading dissident Iranian poet Mehdi Mousavi, who fled Iran in 2015 and whom she met at a poetry festival in 2018. Mousavi now resides in Norway.

“The regime sent people to meet her, and they shot her in the eye,” notes Cohen, who was born in Iran and made aliyah with her family at the age of seven. That, she says, was meant to send a painful double message to young human rights activists. “They decided that the good-lookers among them should be disfigured or die so that there would be images of them with blemishes.”

Ranjkesh is clearly made of sterner stuff. “She uploaded a picture of herself on Instagram, and she said that they can take her eye away from her but not her liberty. She is on Instagram with one eye shut until she has it replaced with a bionic eye. She is still gorgeous.”

NAZIFI TOOK that and ran with it, producing a concise, colorful and alluring work that imparts the activism lay of the land in Iran and the serious consequences thereof. Interestingly, Nazifi features a flock of airborne birds across Rankjesh’s damaged eye. 

They also appear in a dramatic creation by Javid Tabatabai, another exiled Iranian artist, who lives in Vancouver. His picture shows a blonde woman, sans hijab, with her arms raised, making the V for victory gesture with both hands. We see her from the back, presumably a reference to the need to protect activists’ identity, with the Azadi (“Freedom”) Tower in the background. 

The landmark structure, standing 45 m. tall, is one of the iconic spots in Tehran which, in fact, was commissioned by the last shah of Iran in the early 1970s. It was originally called the Shahyad Tower – “Shah’s Memorial Tower” – and, naturally, was renamed after the 1979 revolution. “Javid Tabatabai made a lot of works with the tower,” Cohen says.

Tabatabai’s slots in the exhibition also include a visually and thematically poignant graphic image of Mahsa “Jina” Amini with her uncovered tresses trailing to one side, and nine smaller versions of her with one fist raised in defiance. 

Amini died in a hospital in Tehran on September 16 last year. She was 22 years old. The Law Enforcement Command of the Islamic Republic of Iran stated that she had suffered a heart attack at a police station, collapsed, and fell into a coma before being transferred to a hospital. Eyewitnesses, among them women who were detained along with Amini, reported that she was severely beaten and died as a result of police brutality.

Her death sparked protests in Tehran, with some female demonstrators removing their hijab or cutting their hair. The latter is portrayed in the starkest of terms in Javad Takjoo’s exhibit, which has a nail-polished fist where the character’s face should be as she holds a pair of scissors against her long hair. It is not known where Takjoo currently lives.

Cohen says it was quite a challenge to crystallize the masses of information she gathered on the human rights state of affairs in Iran and to present that to the public in a coherent and comprehensible format. “We decided to tell the story of five women who experienced all sorts of things, and I decided to show only works of art connected to these women.”

THE SELECTED quintet also includes 37-year-old Vida Movahedi, who stood up on a utility box on Enghelab Street in Tehran on December 27, 2017, removed her hijab, tied it to a stick and waved it like a flag. She was subsequently arrested and released on bail a month later.

“These women became a symbol,” Cohen says. “There are hundreds of artists who put out works as soon as there is some kind of incident [involving activist women]. They also upload documentary-like videos – they can be 20 minutes long – of what took place.” Some of those clips are in the exhibition rollout.

One is about another member of the core fivesome. “There is a woman named Hadis Nafaji. Just a few days after Mahsa Amini was killed, when protests started around Iran, Hadis joined a demonstration in Karaj [near Tehran]. 

“A lot of these young people are very active on social networks. She uploaded all sorts of clips of herself; for example, dancing and singing – and, of course, without a hijab. She sent a video message to a friend, saying how happy she was that she was taking part in the protests. She also said she would be much happier in a few years’ time because something had changed.”

Sadly, Nafaji will not get to see how things pan out. “She was videoed at the protest gathering her hair in a ponytail, and a few minutes later she was riddled with bullets and killed on the spot,” Cohen explains. “The social networks were immediately flooded with pictures of her and people lifting up their hair as a gesture of respect for her and as a symbol of our women.”

 JAVID TABATABAI sets a bareheaded activist against the imposing Azadi – Freedom – Tower in Tehran.  (credit: Javid Tabatabai) JAVID TABATABAI sets a bareheaded activist against the imposing Azadi – Freedom – Tower in Tehran. (credit: Javid Tabatabai)

Iran lineup on International Women's Day

THE IRAN lineup at the museum also features a Zoom session on March 8 – International Women’s Day – with Zohreh Mizrahi, a Los Angeles-based human rights lawyer and Jewish exile Iranian who serves as president of the Persian American Civic Action Network (PACAN). Her interlocutor for the day is Nazenin Ansari. Ansari was also born in Iran and now lives in London. She is a well-known journalist and managing editor of Kayhan London, a weekly Persian-language newspaper that speaks out against the Iranian regime. 

Mizrahi and Ansari visited Israel last year, when Ansari says she was delighted to meet Israelis with Iranian roots. “I met a gentleman in the Tel Aviv shuk who spoke better Persian than me,” she laughs. “He came to Israel as a child.”

She is naturally happy about the Cohen-Islamic Museum initiative. “Although the exhibition is in a museum of Islamic art, it is contemporary,” she says, while noting that the substrata to the current state of affairs in Iran are woven into the show. 

“It is interesting because it goes back to the history of what happened in Iran since the revolution. It is about the biggest victims of the revolution – women. That is 50% of the Iranian population. That’s the women who, overnight, lost half their rights.” That is spelled out in no uncertain terms in Five – Woman, Life, Freedom.

I wondered whether, as a journalist, Ansari feels the museum, and culture in general, are good conduits for messages such as women’s rights in Iran. “Certainly museums are places of education,” she observes. “Schoolchildren go to them. Teachers go to them.”

She cites some assertion collateral from her own neck of the woods. “We had an exhibition in London at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A). It was called Epic Iran. They spent a lot of money on it. But then they skipped all the history between 1935 and 1979.” 

The former date is when the then-shah asked Western powers to refer to his country as Iran instead of Persia. When Ayatollah Khomeini became leader, the official name was changed to the Islamic Republic of Iran. “There was no space in that [V&A] exhibition about women,” Ansari adds.

Presumably, then, she is pleased with the new show in Jerusalem. “Especially totalitarian countries; they rewrite history,” she posits. Ansari says greater freedom for women in Iran, of which she was a beneficiary, brought rewards in wider spheres. “The 25 years before the revolution was a time of great economic growth [in Iran]. We, the women, have become the victims [of the Islamic revolution]. This story has to be told.” As it is, powerfully and engagingly, for the next three weeks at the Museum for Islamic Art.

For Cohen, in addition to trying to introduce non-Persian speakers to Iranian poetry, the exhibition is more than just a cultural and arts event. “I feel that right now, this is my way of helping Iranian women. We have to provide them with a mouthpiece through art. We have to make the events taking place in Iran more accessible through art. 

“The exhibition is not easy on the eye. There are no compromises. We have to get the message out there.” ❖ 

Five – Woman, Life, Freedom closes on March 21.

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